8 Early Draft Cuts For A Stronger Manuscript

There’s a reason it’s a good idea to not show anyone early drafts, and that’s because it’s usually full of writing that should be cut.

And these cuts aren’t darlings—writing that’s good but doesn’t fit with the story—they’re the parts of your MS that will make it stronger once you’ve removed them.

They are the weak words that sneak in and clutter up your sentences, the passages that water down your reveals, the ideas that helped you get those early drafts written, but should now be taken out. Cuts such as…

1) The Repeats

The repeats are words you use excessively. Usually to the point you don’t even know you’re doing it until it’s pointed out by a well-intentioned beta reader (or three or four). The word “That” is high on my repeats lists, as are “Realized” and “Surprise”. In early drafts, my characters are always realizing things and finding themselves surprised. If you have just realized noticed you have the same issue, put together a repeat list and use your find and replace function to make cuts.

2) The Author Guide

Early drafts are perfect for working out the story. That’s one of their main purposes; to take that nugget of an idea and turn it into a full-blown book. When you’re piecing together that jigsaw, the first person you need to tell that story to is yourself.

I’m sure if you look closely at your first few drafts, you’ll find the same ideas repeated throughout, similar reveals in different chapters, sometimes even the same backstory said in different ways popping up all over the place. These instances happen when you’re working out the plot. It’s your first-draft-self giving future-draft-you a guide for how the story should play out. You need to know those things to finish the adventure. But once the guide is in place, you need to cut up the roadmap that got you there.

Look for the places where you dropped the same backstory, character description, setting, foreshadowing and anything else that gives the same info again and again and study each instance. Decide what was written better and where it should be placed in the plot for maximum impact, and delete the rest.

3) Dialogue Tags

Not all dialogue tags need to be cut, but if you spent your early draft typing “he/she said” after every sentence of speech, it’s time to learn how much cleaner your draft can be by removing some of your dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are perfect for making it clear who is talking, especially in scenes with more than two characters, but they can also clutter up your early drafts with unnecessary words. If it’s obvious who is speaking, or you can throw in an action beat instead of using “he said” for the twentieth time, give that a try instead.

4) Typos

You won’t catch all the typos with just one round of cuts, in fact, every edit you make will only see you adding more typos. Get into the habit of finding typos with every read through, starting from your early drafts, and you will keep the problem under as much control as you can. Hopefully, by the time your draft goes to betas, there’ll only be a few typos for them to catch.

5) Non-Character Voice

Writing in a way that puts the reader inside the character’s head, making them feel what the MC feels is no easy feat. It’s a skill that takes many drafts to master. That’s why your early drafts are bound to be littered with paragraphs that come from a voice that isn’t your characters.

If any section of your book sounds like an instruction manual rather than a real person, or if a piece of dialogue is so generic any character could have said it, it’s not coming from the character voice. In early drafts that might be because you were still working things out and didn’t know your characters well enough yet. Find those instances and cut them, replacing them with the character voice you’ve found now you’re a few drafts in.

6) Tells

Once you’ve mastered show, don’t tell, it’s easy to spot what areas of your writing are being told instead of shown. Also just as easy was writing those sections as tells in your first draft. You might be under a deadline, or so inspired to get everything down it’s easier to tell now and show later. Either way, your early draft is a tell-fest, and you need to insert some show to make it better. Look for those occurrences, cut, rewrite, and turn your telling paragraphs into an imagery-inducing delight.

7) Staging

Staging is my nemesis, and it wasn’t until I was at least 18 drafts in on my current WIP that I discovered just how much I was doing it. Staging is those passages of text where you think it’s a good idea to detail Every. Single. Movement. A character crossing a room, a character getting out of their car, specifying the left hand picked up a glass, stating exactly where all the characters are standing/sitting/taking a breath. Unless is it necessary to the plot that the reader knows it’s a five-step stroll from the MC’s living room to the kitchen, cut it. Yes, the reader needs an idea of where characters are positioned in a scene and what they’re doing, but they don’t need all the details in between.

8) The Placeholders

Can’t think of a decent name for a character or location in your novel? Stuck on the bridging scene between two action-packed plot twists and decided two filler sentences would do? Have you ever noted “add more here” and left it at that? These placeholders are a rite of passage when writing an early draft and should always be on your list of cuts to replace with more detail. So flesh out your sentences and properly name your characters, because even in a fantasy novel, “NameLater” isn’t a good moniker.

I’ve had to make all of these cuts in early drafts, and if you’ve recognized any of them in your own WIP, try removing and/or rewriting and you should find that you’ve got yourself a stronger draft. After that, you’ll still need copious amounts of edits, chocolate sacrifices to your muse, and to overcome self-doubt to create a finished draft, but that’s a problem for future-draft-you.

— K.M. Allan

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44 thoughts on “8 Early Draft Cuts For A Stronger Manuscript

  1. The repeated words are my enemy. It is amazing how they escape us. I once counted 15 ‘that’s’ in a single page and I had no idea I used so many.

    We get caught up in storytelling to a point where I believe we slowly grow blinders to the words around us.

    Thank you for the excellent advice. They serve as a perfect reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cleaning dialogue tags, removing abused “that” and working on sentence structure knocked off maybe 15k words from my 205k WIP. Hard to say exactly how much when I removed a few scenes completely but it was a lot. I am curious how much of it I’ll be able to avoid (or do in fewer drafts) when working on the follow-ups…
    Anyway, great and relatable article, 7/8 applies to me as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tomas! I always wonder that too, if now I’ve learned these things, I’ll stop doing them in future drafts, but I haven’t had the chance to write a new draft in awhile. I’m still editing WIP’s full of these issues 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My problem is that I’ve done the first draft of #2 and some part of #3 even before I learned all of those – and the fact it’s easier for me to just hammer down the ideas and work on improving it later. So, my hope is to cut down the number of drafts instead of striving for a good first one.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I wrote 4 books before I realised half of this stuff. Now I just spend all my time rewriting my drafts and removing these cuts. We’ll get there one day, and then hopefully the new MS’ will be good from the very first draft 😊.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I need to work on all of these after my first run through of my WIP! Especially writing in the character’s voice (finding this harder in third person), dialogue tags, and repeating certain character thoughts/experiences. Great post, as always! Gives me lots to focus on in upcoming drafts x

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Not completely, but the first time in a very long while! I think some of my earlier scenes have the voice captured quite well, but as I moved on I was focusing more on getting the structure of the story down. I’m excited to re-write these chapters with my character’s voice in mind 😀 x

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey, #2 is something I don’t hear too often, thanks for pointing that out! I’m a fawning fangirl of seeing the text as an organic creature, something that teaches us as we write it, and your piece of advice goes arm-in-arm with that idea. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ruth Miranda

    My characters are always sensing and noticing shit. They’re really sensitive and observant, tho muahahahahahh. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to cut those two words in ALL of my books… and there are still so many!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fantastic points! Finding those repetitious words and phrases is one thing I’ve struggled with for a long time. I started keeping a note book of ones I overuse like “just” and “that” so I can be more aware of my danger areas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a list too and always set aside an editing pass to find each word and decide if I need to keep, delete, or replace. It takes awhile, but it’s worth it. Thanks for the reading 😊.


  7. My worst repeat word is ‘just’. My characters are always ‘just’ going to do something, or have ‘just’ finished. ‘Realised’ is a ‘tell’ word, though. It should ring alarm bells when it crops up, which it often does in my work.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post with great tips! Whenever I’m drafting and I catch myself doing one of my bad writing habits, I try to stop myself there so I don’t have to grimace at it later. If I’m feeling extra salty about my bad writing, I’ll make a note for future-draft-Madeline to read later. (I’m totally using future-draft-you to refer to my future self from now on. I’d rather have her deal with the mess than present-draft-me.)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lindsey Russell

    I wouldn’t say I’ve got ‘that’ beaten but it is now cowering in a corner. I’ve had a blitz on ‘just’, ‘well’, and ‘so’. Their overuse is . . . well just so annoying. I’ve found ‘have been’ harder to conquer.
    And beware of too many glance/d/ing – glanced at their watch, glancing at the clock, a quick glance told them.
    Where character X has to tell character Y something the reader has seen X do then either have the narration state they ‘relayed’ what had happened or use ellipsis – “Did you know . . . ” – then pick up on Y’s reaction to continue (but be more inventive than the very basic way I’ve suggested).
    My characters have been ‘shocked’, ‘alarmed’, even ‘flummoxed’ – I don’t think they’ve been overly ‘surprised’ and certainly not ‘suddenly’ (another one to watch) but I’m off to check, along with whether they’ve ‘realized’ something or other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow what a list of repeats and words to delete. It’s funny how much you don’t realize (I just can’t get away from that word 😅) you’re using the words until you start looking for them. It’s a big job cleaning them up, but once you do, the MS is always better. Have fun with your edits!


  10. Lindsey Russell

    I’ve found nine forms of ‘realize’ – now down to seven, acceptable spread over 90,000 words. Ten forms of ‘surprise’ mainly in dialogue (which surprised me) – I’m working on them but still not in the excessive use range. I think one of a writer’s biggest problems is that the majority of these ‘repeaters’ are used in speech and a character is not going to do a mental pause to substitute an alternative unless the intention is they come across as a walking thesaurus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree, Lindsey 😊. I probably should have added that I usually give repeats more of a pass in dialogue. Cleaning it up in other areas of the book means it doesn’t come across as too much of a repeat if the word pops up in dialogue.


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